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Life in the Roman Empire

History of Rome: A portrait of a typical Roman family

The People of the Empire

The Roman Empire was composed of many ethnic groups, who spoke dozens of languages. It was the emperor who had the power to say who could become a Roman citizen.
During its history the Roman Empire gradually assimilated many different groups, extending the political status of Roman citizenship to "barbaric peoples" who, in their turn, had to learn Latin. Some populations intermingled to a high degree with the Romans and contributed to, but also benefited from, the Roman civilization. Some others remained more independent both politically and culturally. While the Gauls and the Spanish lived peacefully and prosperously within the empire, the Britons remained a rebellious people and were only partially subdued and influenced by their conquerors. Peoples from North Africa and Greece were also Romanized and brought wealth and a developed culture to Romans while keeping intact part of their tradition and cultural identification. Jews lived peacefully under Romans till they were left freedom of worship. Under Nero the situation began to degenerate and the wars that followed eventually led to the final dispersion of the Jewish people, the so called Diaspora.

Roman Society

Rome was a highly hierarchical society where every class or group had well-defined roles. Even though, certain mobility was possible, thanks to the increasing opportunities of enrichment, a hierarchical structure continued to exist invariably all throughout the Empire till its end. Being an imperial, patriarchal society, the highest level in the pyramid was occupied by the emperor and his court, while on the lowest levels there were the working classes, the slaves, and the freedmen. Even though their condition considerably improved, women were never given the chance to occupy the highest levels of the Roman society.
The centre of aristocratic life was the imperial court, made up of senators, equestrians, and other wealthy courtiers who all relied on the patronage and generosity of the emperor. The Roman elite, wealthy, prestigious, privileged, and influent had no other work than managing its estates, often made up of extended lands and great villas and townhouses in the countryside. Here they used to hold elegant banquets to show their generosity and richness.

Poor citizens, noncitizens, slaves and freedmen were all part of the largest Roman class, the low class, made up not only of working classes but also of doctors, musicians, actors, teachers, and philosophers. In a small city people could enjoy the entertainment offered by wealthy patrons and opportunities for enrichment that did not exist in the countryside.

After the conquest of the Mediterranean millions of slaves entered Italy and soon became the labour pilaster of the empire. As Roman law on slavery was inconsistent -slaves were considered just a property- their condition depended on the humanity of their masters. While in the cities their condition notably improved, slaves in the countryside had to suffer a very cruel treatment. Even if slavery continued to be exploited for the work on the farms, during the late empire it was slowly replaced by other forms of cheaper, and even harsher, cheap labor.
Slaves could gain their freedom and even aspire not only to wealthy but also, for their sons, to social prominence. Those enriched and freed slaves were called freedman.

Roman society had long valued boys above girls. This eventually led to many cases of abandonment and female infanticide. In Rome men held political power and women could only exercise indirect power. Those who belonged to the aristocracy, especially the wives of the emperors, influenced politics but were mostly considered as grasping and devious. Women from the lower classes were mostly housewives, but they also worked as nurses, waitresses, midwives, weavers, and food sellers. The most important role played by women, anyway, was in religion. The so called Vestal virgins, priestesses of the goddess of the hearth Vesta, kept the sacred fire burning at Vesta's temple in the Roman forum. Though, apart from this honoured task, women could very hardly emerge in the Roman society.

As the empire developed, the emperor stood at the top of the administrative system and served as commander in chief, high priest, court of appeal, and source of law. His power was deeply personal and was controlled by personal ties of patronage. At every level, the Roman society was bound and loyal even to the most monstrous emperor. The emperors took over the Senate's political and legislative power and exercised it appointing senators and equestrians as governors, generals, and prefects. As the government expanded, the "equestrian career" began to offer possibilities of career, but social mobility remained substantially limited.
While in the republic Roman law was mostly based on customs, during the Empire the legal system was totally controlled by the emperor, ultimate source of law, and become more and more formal. The rigid system of Roman law was often changed and adapted by flexible alternative procedures that, without replacing the older laws, allowed the adopting of new ideas or the extending of legal principles in the complex environment of the empire. Still, it was only in the 6th century AD that the emperor Justinian I, who ruled over the Byzantine Empire in the east, began to publish a comprehensive code of laws, known as the Justinian Code.

Urban Life

Ancient Rome was situated on seven hills and its monumental public buildings, the Colosseum, the Forum of Trajan, and the Pantheon, made the city the "capital of the world" under the emperors. Rome did not have only arenas, temples, and forums, but also theatres, basilicas, gymnasiums, baths, taverns, and brothels. While Augustus lived in a modest house, his successors progressively extended it into an enormous imperial residence on the Palatine Hill. While the rich preferred to live on the hills, the poor lived packed into apartment houses near the centre with their animals.
The emperors gave high priority to acquiring, shipping, storing, and distributing food for Rome and other major urban areas. They provided free food to hundreds of thousands, built huge waterways, called aqueducts, to provide water, and sponsored an endless series of games to prevent discontent among the people. The different form of entertainment, including chariot races, theatrical and musical performances, wild-beast hunt, mock sea battles, public executions, and the notorious gladatorial combats played in the Colosseum had to pacify the urban masses giving them a chance to enjoy themselves and see the emperor. The most popular events were the chariot races held in the Circus Maximus, an arena that held up to 300.000 spectators.
While many urban areas, especially in the east, remained relatively independent and rested on the government of local elite, most of the new cities of the western provinces followed the same pattern of Rome both from an architectural and administrative point of view. Besides a forum and temples, lots of them had the same kind, on a smaller scale, of public buildings found in Rome. In charge of their erection was the municipal council, called curia, that relying on annually elected officials had to guarantee the food supply, the public service, the religious festivities, and the town finance. Most of the times it was the local elite that sponsorized the erection of public building, the games, and the distribution of food. The Romans thus created in these outlying cities a provincial aristocracy modelled on Rome's social system. The imperial government expected local authorities to maintain order by the same social and cultural methods used by Rome.

Rural life

Even though the cities of the empire were largely inhabited and had impressive buildings, 90 percent of the population lived and worked in the countryside in very harsh conditions. Particularly bad was the situation in Egypt, where most of the peasants lived in crushing poverty and had none of the diversions of the city like games, religious festivals, or free distribution of food. Those hard conditions cause a move from the countryside to the cities. This phenomenon eventually led to a depopulation of the countryside.


Since the beginning, Romans displayed remarkable skill at building and engineering. They constructed bridges, aqueducts, and a network of roads to link the capital with the conquered territories. Many of these works still exist and are in use. Roman constructions were built to last.
The great work of public construction began under Augustus, who had to satisfy the new exigencies of a growing city. One of his best erection is Forum of Augustus, built close to the Roman Forum and decorated with sculpture and inscriptions in honour of the great Romans of the past.
The use of concrete, from the 1st century AD, enabled Romans architects to erect monumental buildings such as the Colosseum, commissioned by Vespasiano, forums, basilicas, and baths. All the emperors contributed to the enrichment and development of the city erecting new palaces and public constructions both for their entertainment and for commercial, social and political demands. Well known is the Forum of Trajan erected for the distribution of the food, one of the most lasting and successful practises of the Roman Empire. The Romans also built some extraordinarily beautiful structures that have influenced architecture throughout the centuries. Between 118 and 128 Adrian designed the project of the Pantheon, a magnificent temple dedicated to "all the gods".

Roman public buildings were usually decorated with elaborate relief sculpture in marble, especially after the discovery of new quarries in northern Italy. Often those sculptures introduced divine elements into specific historical scenes, such as the scenes of Roman gods and mythic characters that accompany the procession of the imperial family sculpted in the Altar of Augustan Peace. The most elaborate relief is the 700-foot frieze that winds around the ten-story Trajan Column. The several figures, both historical and divine, and the excavations in the frieze are extraordinarily exact and detailed.


The peace and prosperity under Augustus brought about the revival of patriotic literature known as the new Golden Age. The most practised form of literature was poetry, magnified by poets such as Horace ("The Odes", 23 BC), Virgil ("The Aeneid", 30-19 BC), and Ovid ("Ars Amatoria", "The Metamorphoses"), while Livy's masterwork is still the best source on which to rely for the history of Rome from its mythic origin to his own day.

The writers of the 1st century AD believed that Roman literature had declined since the golden age under Augustus and became part of the so called Silver Age. The most famous are the Seneca, writer of essays and moral letters, Petronius, known for his "Satyricon", Juvenal, Suetonius, and Tacitus. All these writers displayed a great rhetorical skill, biting wit, and a black vision-characteristic best found in Tacitu's works. His "Annales" are considered by many as the greatest history written in Latin.

Do you want to read more about the Roma's History? Here the links to the other sections:

The Early Rome
The Republican Rome
The Roman Empire
Rome in the Middle Age
The Renaissance
The Risorgimento
Modern Rome
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